His play falls under the radar, but Dmitry Kulikov’s Panthers priority is ‘getting the wins’

As Dmitry Kulikov made his way onto the ice for Game 1 of the Florida Panthers’ opening-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he tried to soak in the moment.

The crowd was roaring. The arena was flashing red. It was a sight to behold.

“It was so loud that I couldn’t hear anything other than fans screaming,” Kulikov said. “That really got me going.”

Kulikov then returned the favor to the crowd by setting the tone with a big early hit on Tampa Bay’s Michael Eyssimont behind the Panthers’ net in the opening minutes — one of 126 total hits laid out between the two teams in Florida’s 3-2 win to begin the best-of-7 series.

“I like physicality in the game,” Kulikov said. “It’s not just throwing big hits — I’m not always looking for a big hit — but when the opportunity presents itself, when it lines up like that, it ended up being a good hit. I’m trying to be physical. Sometimes it happens to be like that.”

Kulikov, playing in his 15th NHL season and his second stint with the Panthers after Florida drafted him in the first round in 2009, tended to fly under the radar. His role sets him up for that scenario. He’s not flashy or an offensive juggernaut. He’ll make plays in the offensive zone when the opportunity comes, but his priority is being a defensive-minded third-pairing defenseman. His impact comes from limiting the opposition.

“He deserves more credit,” fellow defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “That’s for sure.”

“Dmitry is underappreciated,” echoed coach Paul Maurice.

But Kulikov embraces that identity, and his ability to step up at key moments is a critical reason Florida’s defense core is as deep as it is as it attempts to make another deep playoff run.

“I got here to be part of a team that wins and have a chance to win. I like to defend,” Kulikov said. “Getting up on the rush and getting opportunities in the offensive zone, that’s just all part of the game. But for me, playing the game the honest way and getting the wins, that’s the most important.”

Foundation to Panthers’ success on display in Game 1 win vs. Lightning. The goal now: Sustain it

Kulikov was one of the three key defenseman signings the Panthers made this offseason — Ekman-Larsson and Niko Mikkola were the others — to both bolster overall depth and help offset the early absences of Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, who both missed the first 16 games of the season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

In 76 regular-season games this season, Kulikov had one goal and 19 assists while averaging 16-and-a-half minutes on the ice. He was second among Florida defensemen in hits (145) and third in blocked shots (84).

“I think the guys that play in the NHL that block shots, take hits, kill penalties, and I mean this very respectfully, play against the other team’s third and fourth lines, which are usually very heavy, those guys get a lot of respect in the room,” Maurice said. “They’ll take a hit to make a play, and it’s a heavy hit — and he’ll give one back too — and then block a shot. He does all the hard things that are on the defenseman’s to-do list. ... He does that every night for us, and he’s very much appreciated in that room.”

Florida Panthers defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson (91) and Dmitry Kulikov (7) try to get the puck from Ottawa Senators center Ridly Greig (71) during the first period of a game on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson (91) and Dmitry Kulikov (7) try to get the puck from Ottawa Senators center Ridly Greig (71) during the first period of a game on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla.

Once Ekblad and Montour returned, Kulikov found himself on Florida’s third defense pairing with Ekman-Larsson, giving the Panthers a bottom pairing with nearly 30 combined years and more than 1,900 games of NHL experience.

In nearly 466 minutes together of five-on-five play with both Kulikov and Ekman-Larsson on the ice, the Panthers controlled 55.18 percent of shot attempts and allowed just 17 goals. That equates to an averaged of just 2.19 goals allowed per 60 minutes played, which is 21st among 66 defense pairings with at least 450 minutes together at five-on-five.

(For reference, Florida’s pairing of Ekblad and Gustav Forsling is second in that group at 1.33 goals per 60 minutes, while the Montour-Mikkola pairing is 34th at 2.5 goals per 60 minutes).

“They really play within their own game,” Maurice said of the Kulikov and Ekman-Larsson pairing. “Veteran defenseman don’t try to do all things at once. They don’t try to be all things. ... They’re predictable in their play. They’re predictable for each other. They’re both smart guys. They learn how to play off each other.”

Ekman-Larsson called Kulikov a “steady, steady veteran guy” who has helped him elevate his game.

“We can read off each other,” Ekman-Larsson said. “Just overall, he’s bumping into guys and wants me to bump into you guys and when he’s up the ice, he kind of want to get me up the ice. We’re reading off each other very good. And he’s a guy that cares a lot about his surroundings and just making everybody feel comfortable. That’s helped me, too.”

Kulikov thriving with the Panthers this year is a full-circle moment. He spent his first seven NHL seasons with the Panthers after Florida picked him 14th overall in 2009 NHL Draft. That stretch included five years with Florida as one of the worst teams in the NHL and two years with first-round exits from the playoffs.

Kulikov had played in just 16 playoff games since his first stint with the Panthers ended before signing with Florida this offseason. After Florida’s successful regular season that included winning the Atlantic Division, he isn’t taking this potential lengthy playoff run for granted.

“I have enjoyed it a lot,” Kulikov said. “It’s really fun. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to play on a good team.”